Shadow of the Tomb Raider Gameplay Director, Producer Discuss How it Came to Be

Tomb Raider received an extremely memorable reboot back in 2013, where players were welcomed to a whole new kind of Lara Croft. Following that was an equally-successful sequel in Rise of the Tomb Raider. Now players have just gotten into the latest, being Shadow of the Tomb Raider. Hardcore Gamer was able to sit down with the Senior Gameplay Director Daniel Chayer-Bisson and Senior Producer Mario Chabtini to talk about Shadow of the Tomb Raider and learn a few more details on this latest story, as well as the series as a whole.  

[Hardcore Gamer] When Tomb Raider was restarted in 2013, did you know at the time you wanted to make three games?

[Daniel Chayer-Bisson] Lara’s character arc was always planned to be three parts. 2013 was her discovering her strength and surviving. People might not know Lara for exactly who she is because there is a big gap between Tomb Raider Underworld, for example, and Tomb Raider 2013 so it was important for us that the theme of the first game was about understanding who this Lara is. For herself and for players.

In Rise, was all about Croft. Now she knows who she is, she knows she’s capable and she knows that no one will save her. She will save herself and she can do it. Even Roth told her ‘You can do it, you’re a Croft.’. So, the second game was about her understanding what her legacy is and who her father is. What does he mean when he says ‘Extraordinary is not who you are, it’s what you do.’. In Shadow we knew that she would be at the apex of what she could do. We knew that she was going to be badass. Lara Croft has had the theme of finding her place in the world and taking on the role of Tomb Raider.

What does it mean exactly? I’m not talking about her physical capacities, I’m talking about how emotionally she’s ready to take on that role. If you play Shadow at the beginning, you know she’s not. She’s physically prepared that’s no problem, she has strength and muscle and she feels ready to take anything. She’s over confident, she’s powerful, she’s smart and she knows that. But, she doesn’t have the emotional maturity. So when she meets Dr. Dominguez for the first time, who is the opposite of her, he’s the leader of trinity but he’s a nice guy too who has something she doesn’t. He’s telling her things like ‘By the way I admire your work.’ cause he knows her, she’s super smart! He says ‘I see you have the dagger, that’s good, I couldn’t get it. Where’s the box?’ Lara meanwhile, like a child acting innocence with a full face of chocolate ‘I didn’t take any chocolate!’ and he’s looking at her like ‘Oh my god you didn’t think about the consequences, there was writing all over the place that says don’t take the dagger otherwise there’s going to be something bad happening!’

But she did it anyway because she thought she was doing the right thing by taking the dagger out of trinity, but she chose wrong. [Dr. Dominquez] has something she doesn’t have: maturity. The whole game is her growing to a mature level so that she understands the consequences of her actions. In Rise and Tomb Raider 2013, she didn’t have to deal with the consequence of her actions because it was the consequence of others she was dealing with. That’s her learning right there. That’s how she realizes that she’s human and that she needs to grow. With maturity comes responsibility.

Each game in the new series has had its own unique setting, what was your inspiration going into Shadow?

[DC] It didn’t start like that, we didn’t say ‘Mayan! Mexico! Let’s go!’ we didn’t know what we wanted, we went all over the place. But we knew what we wanted to do and we knew what the destination was; she has to become the Tomb Raider. She has to be at the apex, the height of her capacity. If tomb raider 2013 was her being shaped by the world, and Rise was her defying the world, and then Shadow is her mastering the world. So for mastering the world, you have to have an environment that is alive, dangerous and trying to kill you. In the jungle you never find yourself lacking food or water, but you’re probably gonna end up being eaten by something else. That was something that we read a lot on, cause of course in 2013 I read a lot of survival books. Even in Shadow with the jungle and survival, we realized this is very dangerous. People go to sleep, and suddenly oh my god there’s a snake eating you! So there’s a lot of things that are happening. For us, we try to use the jungle. The first time we saw the prototype, it was ugly like hell, but the first time we saw the prototype we were like whoa. Oh my god, it felt so natural, so real and then, we got the second feeling that is very powerful; nostalgia. We were saying this feels like the classical Tomb Raider, this feels like Underworld or like Tomb Raider 2.

[Mario Chabtini] Yeah even for me, I joined the project later on and when you look at it in retrospective the jungle is kind of like how Paititi is a celebration of life. Shadow is always the dark with the light, and the jungle is a celebration of life too, but its super dangerous. It can kill you, but at the same time there’s so much life in the jungle. So for us it’s the perfect setting where Lara needed to be brought.

You showed off the mudslide scene and talked about branching paths; how did you decide on the overall difficulty for Shadow?

[MC] Tons of play testing. Tons and tons. That’s why we ended up with our three pillars of difficulty level. We end up with people who are good in combat, not so good at puzzles so we have that there so players can customize their own difficulty. But it’s mainly a matter of play testing, and trying to look at where players have a hard time and trying to find the right balance.

[DC] The funny thing I realized working on this franchise, and this is new I’ve never talked about this, but what I’ve realized is that everybody loves tombs. Everybody. There’s no one that hates tombs, otherwise they don’t play tomb raider. But, I’ve realized not everyone loves puzzles. See, a lot of people associate puzzles with tombs, which is not the case. People love discovering a new place to just go there. But then they see a puzzle and are like oh my god, I don’t want to do that! The funny thing about Tomb Raider is that when people are doing tomb raiding a lot of people they prefer if the tomb would be filled with tons of people to shoot in the face. Some people would prefer to the tomb just be climbing things, as long as [they] find something special that has never been found. This is a stronger fantasy, and that’s why it’s cool having this. Some people just don’t like the puzzles. When I talk to the community some people are like no! Everybody loves puzzles! But no, that’s not true. Actually, a lot of people where they drop the game and say I don’t want to continue is always because of a puzzle. That’s why we had to make them easier than in 2013 and Rise. People love tombs, but not everybody loves puzzles.

What made you decide to lower the overall combat in favor of exploration?

DC: This game was about tomb raiding, it’s about a tomb raider. It’s the most tomb raider of the three games. I knew at the beginning that’s what I wanted, I wanted to make sure that we knew this Lara from inside out, we wanted to make sure we understood that. Not from just a cinematic standpoint where you just watch a cinematic or they walk and talk about this and that.

People don’t know that it’s 60% combat, they just know there’s a lot of combat. They don’t know it’s 30%, they don’t know the numbers but they know how they feel about it, they know how it has felt. Feeling like it’s a third of the gameplay automatically the feedback we’re seeing is that it really feels like Tomb Raider. I was like thank you, that’s exactly what I was doing! Immediately it trickles down to a lot more about exploration and the social hub, people are now exploring a lot more and it’s not just about the world but people. You know Lara is always going into places where people are dead. I spent eight years of my life with dead people because I’ve been working on Tomb Raider. I spent a lot of time with dead people. So having a game where interacting with these people who are still alive is refreshing. People will go to Paititi they stay in Paititi it’s crazy. Cause it’s just another world, it’s completely different then what they played before.

MC: We’re really into listening to the fans and the community and we were asked a lot if we can we add more tombs and can we add more underwater. So, if I take my producer hat and with the time we have investing in more tombs and more underwater everything is like a balance. So we have less combat but in the end it becomes like the game that fits perfectly with the initial intention. We saw that in the play test, cause the ratings were pretty high and people were feeling comfortable with the amount of combat we have right now and it’s well balanced.

DC: Even people who played four hours said wow this feels like tomb raiding. With all the exploration and finding tombs, it’s great.

Lara Croft had her character arc planned out and in the first game there were a lot of characters she interacted with. What made you decide to make Jonah her main companion throughout the sequels?

[DC] If you know what’s happening to Sam, she’s not very stable. Lara needs somebody stable, and Reyes has a kid so there’s a couple things right there. The rest of the people are all dead, so it was fairly easy to say it’s gonna be Jonah. Also, what I like from Jonah’s character and what people love about Jonah is that he’s super grounded and calm. He’s like a rock, and Lara doesn’t have a home. She has the Croft manner but she doesn’t really care about it as much because it’s the legacy home, it’s not her home, not yet. So the in this case is she needs to have a home and a home is Jonah, he becomes that home. He becomes the stability. Not because he’s going to protect her, but she needs something that she can always come back to when she is emotionally breaking down, and he was always there. For Lara, it’s an exchange that makes Jonah even better as a person. He lost his brother, and he feels guilt about that and having Lara there makes him feel complete, as a whole and that is the relationship that they have. It’s like a family, a brother and sister that’s why he calls her little bird. You’re gonna fall in love with him in Shadow. The thing about Jonah in this game is that we’re also diving into a relationship between the two, and we learn more about Lara.

[MC] He’s the moral compass for Lara, and something we wanted to do in shadow of the tomb raider is instead of being story driven it’s more character driven. So, again, my producer hat. Screen time we focus on one thing but we build it strongly. It was more in line with the idea of crafting emotions for that game.

[DC] I wanted people to know Lara inside and out. That’s why we can say this is the most emotional yet. You’re going to laugh, and also you’re going to cry and get mad. Even after playing eight thousand times, we still feel that so players will too.